Thursday, 7 May 2015

Suzanne Stern-Gillet on ‘Is philosophy a set of footnotes to Plato?’

I went to an interesting polemical talk by Professor Suzanne Stern-Gillet yesterday called ‘Is philosophy a set of footnotes to Plato?’.

The abstract ran as follows.

A unique particularity of philosophy as an academic discipline is to include, as an integral part of itself, a reflection on its own past.  This is a ‘fact’ insofar as anyone embarking on the study of philosophy today can expect frequent encounters with Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant and countless other figures from the past.  Why should this be so?  And, if it is so, why did a well-known Princeton philosopher, in the heyday of analytic philosophy, advise his students to ‘say “no” to the history of philosophy’?  An outline of the two positions will be followed by a discussion of a few case studies chosen to highlight the pitfalls (unless they be benefits) of creative appropriation and the challenge involved in casting one’s mind back to the distant philosophical past.

The structure of the talk involved first assembling some characteristic quotations from analytic philosophy expressing ahistorical views of the nature of the subject and then pointing out some vices to which this left them hostage. (Whilst continental philosophers were not charged with equal crimes neither did they escape entirely on the grounds of obfuscation.)

Some characteristic analytical comments included:
  • Bernard Williams: ‘The legacy of Greece to Western philosophy is Western philosophy.’ (1981, reprinted in The Sense of the Past: Essays on the Philosophy of History, 2006)
  • Quine (allegedly): ‘There are two sorts of people interested in philosophy, those interested in philosophy and those interested in the history of philosophy.’
  • John Searle (allegedly): ‘I am an analytical philosopher.  I think for myself’
  • Gilbert Harman (allegedly): Just ‘say “no” to the history of philosophy’ (inspired by Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just say “no” to drugs.’).  N.B.: he denied having said it.
I jotted down some of the problems that an ahistorical approach fell victim to. They included. 
  • Assuming that philosophical problems are trans historical, remain the same unaffected by contingencies. (This is indicated by book titles such as Problems of Philosophy).
  • Presenting historically separated philosophers as conversational partners. (eg Jonathan Bennett in the preface to A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics (1984, p. 1): The book was written in the hope of convincing philosophers that Spinoza can be treated as ‘an energetic collaborator or antagonist’ (p. 1), mindful no doubt of Ryle’s warning to Wittgenstein and his acolytes that past philosophers ‘should be treated more like colleagues than like pupils.’ (‘Autobiographical’, 1971, p.10 sqq.)).
  • Adopting what Ian Hacking calls this a pen friend approach but it is also akin to a ghostly dinner party in which the shade of dead philosophers are present together. But this assumes, falsely, that they would be able to engage with each other's views.
  • Paying minimal attention to dialectical context. They do not ask why texts were written, in response to which problems and why the problems were problems.
  • Paying minimal attention to the overall coherence of an argument with the rest of a dead philosopher's work.
Although I certainly agree with the virtues of a rounded historically-informed approach to philosophy (even though I lamentably fail to adopt one myself never happy delving further back than 1953), it seemed to me that the talk did not actually engage the philosophers it criticised. The vices Suzanne warned of and the virtues she praised all presupposed that the idea that getting the history of the subject right mattered. But that is just what ahistorical analytic philosophers do not care about. For example, they do not make the historical error of assuming that their problems are the same as those of the real though dead Plato. They don't give a damn about his problems only their own. Because of this they do not assume historical continuity, rather they deny history. Philosophy is restricted to the present tense. Given that, then none of the vices will seem to be vices to those to whom the argunents are addressed. (The likely fact that the actual dead philosophers would not have understood one another again misses the point. ‘Their’ views are compared and contrasted from the contemporary perspective so they are not really their views at all.)

One of the vices that Suzanne ascribed to ahistorical philosophers was not being sensitive to other philosopher’s genuinely different perspectives. But in assuming that ahistorical analytic philosophers assume the continuity of their problems with the past (by contrast with making no such assumption and at most projecting contemporary problems back onto a fictionalised past) she seemed to fall prey to that very vice. If one presupposes the value of the history of philosophy then what ahistorical philosophers do will seem epistemically risky or simply blind to important facts. But that presupposition is not shared by them: they are doing something genuinely different.

If I heard correctly there was a further interesting brief suggestion: the history of philosophy need not be interested in the whole of the context of philosophical authors and texts: not social context, for example. That would be mere history of ideas. Having rubbed shoulders with social historians of science this seemed to me to be an interestingly arbitrary view of what was essential for understanding the history of the subject.